Three books shortlisted for young adult prizes - Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers, Holly Smale's Geek Girl and Julie Berry's All the Truth That's In Me. Two Care Bears and a grizzly. Oh, and a random shout-out to Avengers Arena.
Katherine Rundell's Rooftoppers (2013) - one of this year's Carnegie finalists - is charming to the point of Disneyfication, a collection of adorable figures and improbable coincidences that would be utterly saccharine if it didn't work so damn well. Sophie is an orphan - the survivor of a shipwreck, found floating in a cello case and claimed by an eccentric bachelor, Charles. Charles raises her in the best cinematic fashion: they write on the walls, eat jam for every meal, climb on the roof and replace formal schooling with lots of Shakespeare. Sophie doesn't even wear dresses - Charles gives her trousers instead, the crazy fool.
Well, naturally the Welfare people (a YA novel where the state is the villain? What are the odds?!) don't like this arrangement. Charles isn't raising Sophie as a lady and they're going to put her in an orphanage instead. Charles and Sophie do the sensible thing and scamper over to Paris, prompted, in part, by Sophie discovering a Parisian address in her cello case. Once there, the two become an unlikely pair of detectives: Charles trying trying the legal avenues and Sophie, well, she takes to the rooftops. It seems that Paris is inhabited by tribes of feral orphans, bounding from roof to roof, free as the birds they hunt and eat.
There are certainly some dark moments, but on the whole, Rooftoppers is just cute. From the beginning the whole foppish Shakespeare and jam thing signposts that this is a charming unreality, where Sophie and Charles blithely and anachronistically bound from adventure to adventure, with roof-picnics and music lessons and more. I hasten to add that there's nothing wrong with this: Rooftoppers is cute, but it is clever, adventurous and, on the whole, good clean fun. Certainly recommended for fans of Frances Hardinge (who strikes a similar tone, though with more, um, substance), or, for that matter, steampunk.
Meanwhile, another shortlisted book - Holly Smale's Geek Girl (2013), one of the finalists for the Waterstones Children's Prize. Harriet Manners is a geek - we know this because, well, she's, like, geeky: she spouts trivia all the time and dresses funny and has silly hair and doesn't get, like, fashion and stuff. Like Sophie, Harriet has a bonkers father and increasingly unreal life: Harriet, whilst escorting her 'normal' friend to a talent show, accidentally gets herself scouted into being a supermodel. Doh.
Also like Rooftoppers, there's an air of the Disney about this: Harriet is our Hannah Montana, a nice little everygirl with a Wild and Crazy celebrity secret life. Certainly, the shtick is fun, but, for Geek Girl, it was more slapstick than serious. Despite the many, many, many efforts of the book to scream that HARRIET IS ONE OF US, I never bought it. By the time all of her idiosyncracies (she crawls under tables when scared! she wears clothing at random!) are established, there's not a lot of space left for empathy - especially when the situations are so obviously contrived to make for a happy ending. I don't want to rain on the parade: Geek Girl is a warm book with a lot of heart and a genuinely positive message about geekdom (hint: people should enjoy what they enjoy). But if you're looking for a (young) young adult book with deliberately bonkers characters, improbable scenarios and cheerful resolutions, I'd probably suggest Rooftoppers first.
(An aside: I know this is a forced comparison because of the names, but I much prefer the approach of Gossip Girl. Gossip Girl specialises in taking people that are so very much not ONE OF US, and a) making them empathetic and b) ultimately pointing out that we're part of the same 'us'. For me, that's a far easier sell than a book that tries so hard to establish a character as just like the reader. I have no idea if Serena and Blair are accurate representations of the 1% of the 1% - but it is easy for me to suspend my belief long enough to get pulled in. But give me someone that's supposed to be like me, and I'll start nitpicking.)
INTERVAL! Random comic book mini-review: Avengers Arena: Volume 1, Kill or Die. Who are these people? Seriously. Wait, is that like, Captain Britain's kid? Oh crap, they just killed someone actually dead. Or something. Maybe that means this is a spin-off or alternate universe or something? Is it a dream sequence? It is set up kind of like a dream sequence. SERIOUSLY, WHO ARE THESE CHARACTERS?! Eh. I don't care.
Rounding out this set of reviews is another Carnegie finalist, Julie Berry's All the Truth That's In Me (2013). [I feel a bit like this might be the Platonic ideal of issue-driven YA titles. Is it possible to fit in more angst? I think not.] Judith and another girl disappeared from their small town - after two years, Judith returned alive, but unable to speak - the other girl didn't return at all. Told alternately in the first and second person, both from Judith's point of view, All the Truth That's In Me is a tense and stifling tale. Judith, oppressed, compressed and, er, repressed, is desperate to find some way of speaking out. She wants to tell the boy she loves how she feels. She wants to communicate openly with her mother and brother. She even wants to tell the town the truth of her disappearance. But she doesn't - instead, she lives in silence, and takes some small comfort in the fact that she's become a forgotten non-entity. However, as events spiral further and further out of her control, Judith's forced to choose between the relatively safety of being overlooked and the fearful known of speaking up.
The setting of All the Truth That's In Me is, well, a bit weird - something like Colonial America, with a mysterious overseas enemy and religious Puritanism. This only adds to the stifling atmosphere of the book: the town of Roswell Station is tiny and everyone truly lives in one another's lives. It also accentuates Judith's choices (or lack thereof): there is the tiny, horrible, insular known of the town and the great and wild unknown of the rest of the world. Judith has options, but they're extremely limited - leaving her family would mean risking death in the wilderness.
The intensity is further ramped up by the shifting point of view. Judith's life revolves around the (not so proverbial) boy next door, a good-hearted neighbour that she's loved since she was a child. Her behaviour isn't exactly... ok... she watches him without him knowing, breaks into his home, touches him while he's napping... and the use of the second person makes these scenes all the more intimate and disturbing. Nor is this ever condoned as ok - Judith's obsessive crush is a result of her own horrible experiences (in the past, and with her family). She's so desperate to find an ideal of love (or basic human warmth) that is is more sad than scary.
Judith's uncomfortable stalker-y behaviour is a mirror of the way the rest of the town behaves with her: from her kidnapper to the town gossip to the fire-and-brimstone preacher to the lecherous schoolteacher. Every person in the town forces him or herself into Judith's life, making decisions for her, telling her what to do, watching her every move; it isn't about agency, but about invasion. Everyone is living in her space, in her life. It is claustrophobic. If Judith takes a bit of this power for herself, to watch over her neighbour, it is only a small reflection of the broken, horrible system that rules this society.
All the Truth That's In Me does have a plot arc, with a resolution and everything, but the strength of this book isn't in the adventure - Judith's fight to save her town and herself, but in the bigger questions: will a town like this ever be ok? What should Judith do, not only during the course of this book, but after it? Speaking the truth is half the story. What you do next is the rest... Despite attempts to tie everything up at the end, All the Truth That's In Me leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and I'm glad of it - this is a powerful book that prompts a lot of interrogation and, hopefully, conversation. Unlike Rooftoppers or Geek Girl, All the Truth That's In Me isn't a charming book. It is uncomfortable, unpleasant and more than a little disturbing. It probably goes without saying, but I'm glad both types of book exist. (And everything in-between.)